“Okay.” Mr. Arden, my social studies teacher, stands at the front of the worn out temporary classroom, which is at least twenty years past its expiration date. “So…who can give me some examples of common figures in human mythology?”
He’d have better luck asking a family of chimpanzees.
As usual, my fellow classmates are totally ignoring him, gossiping, and checking cell phones to see if any new texts have popped up in the six seconds since they last looked.
“Anyone?” With a remarkable look of patience, given the circumstances, he adjusts the round hipster glasses perched on his nose. His too long, graying-brown hair hangs limp, the uneven ends drooping over his ears as if he’s wilting like a dying plant under the harsh flickering fluorescent lights.
I hesitate, but no one’s talking to me anyway, so…I raise my hand. “Hathor, Isis, and Horus from ancient Egypt?”
Mr. Arden’s smile is so kind it almost distracts from the dark hollows under his brownish-green eyes, and the general air of exhaustion so many teachers in my small, underfunded school wear like a shroud.
A sneezing fit, obviously triggered by some kind of spontaneous, bully-infused pollen and filled with words like loser, dork, and nerd girl, spreads around the room. The few students not faking allergies splutter and shoot hate-filled glares my way. Compared to the usual, the insults are almost compliments and barely sting my battle-hardened surface.
Mr. Arden raises an eyebrow and glances around. “Anyone else?” A threadbare tan sports coat, scuffed shoes, and jeans that look about two sizes too large for his skinny frame spoil his attempt at intimidation as no one answers the poor man. “Someone other than Alex needs to answer me, or you’ll all be staying in this classroom for lunch.”
Yeah, now you got their attention.
They straighten in their graffiti-covered desks and glance at each other until another student, Lisa, raises her hand.
“Um…Hercules and Thor and those, like, total hotties in those, like, totally awesome movies?” she asks in her fake Valley-girl trill.
Actual Valley girls are about two thousand miles east of this part of Chicago, and Lisa’s a hormone-fueled ditz.
Everyone explodes with chatter—the guys agreeing those movies are, indeed, awesome, and the girls commenting on Chris Hemsworth’s general sexiness.
I roll my eyes and notice no one heckles her for answering correctly.
“Fantastic example. Any others?”
The hope in Mr. Arden’s voice prompts me to raise my hand again, and everyone groans.
He ignores them and nods. “Alex.”
“The Celtic mythology of the Tuatha De Danann and King Nuadha?”
A wide grin breaks his solemn expression, and I notice he’s quite cute—for a teacher.
“Ah, my favorite mythology of all! Old King Silver Arm and the origin of the fairies,” he says. “Nice work.”
I smile. The Irish mythology is my favorite too and reminds me of the bedtime stories my mother told when I was little.
“Nice work, Jolly Red Giant,” Matt Koch, school tyrant and general all-around dick, says just loud enough to carry across the whole room.
A spark of fire lights Mr. Arden’s exhausted expression. “Detention, Mr. Koch, for the rest of the week. I will not tolerate bullying!”
Matt groans and shoots me a glare.
Like his nonstop mouth is somehow my fault.
“Who can tell me why human mythology was important to the ancients?”
Everyone is completely focused now that detentions are being handed out, but no one answers, not even me.
It’s not worth it. Don’t poke the bear, as they say.
With nothing but blanks stares and shrugs facing him, Mr. Arden sighs and the tired shroud lowers over his shoulders once again. “Mythology was important because it provided our ancestors with some answers to the human condition.”
A couple of people ooh and nod, but I can tell the lights still aren’t on.
“Imagine how unpredictable and unfair life must have seemed during ancient times, before science was known or accepted. Thunderstorms, earthquakes, tidal waves, not to mention atrocities committed by humans on other humans, were regular occurrences. Entire communities were wiped out in a single day with no warning, which is what they say happened to the fabled city of Atlantis. It gave a sense of order and control to create mythology around these events and explain them away as the acts of angry gods. These myths provided answers to basic questions we’ve always had about things like human existence, where we come from, and why we’re here. They explained the unexplainable.”
The bell rings, and even Mr. Arden looks relieved.
“That’s all for this period. Dismissed!”
No one feels the need to wait for an official dismissal. In fact, they don’t hear a word he says as they’re already shoving each other through the narrow door in their haste to be free.
I linger, collecting my books and waiting for all the others to clear out. If I’m lucky, they’ll forget about me in their eagerness to eat lunch, and I’ll be able to walk the halls unmolested.
“You know about the Irish legends of the Tuatha De Danann?” Mr. Arden cocks his head to one side.
I shrug. “My mother used to tell me all about them when I was little. I was born in Ireland, so I guess she wanted me to learn the local legends, even though I haven’t been there since I was a baby. We moved to Chicago when I was only a few months old.”
He nods and smiles. “They’re good stories. Although, some might say they’re not stories at all, but fact.”
The single bark of laughter sounds bitter, even to me. “Oh, please. I wish fairies were real, but I’ve never seen a single one at the bottom of my garden sprinkling glitter dust. And believe me, I’ve looked.” My very own wish-granting fairy would be nice about now.
Mr. Arden stares at me for a long moment before gathering his books and heading toward the door. “I know you’re having a hard time. But be careful what you wish for, Alex.”
I sigh as I watch him, throwing my backpack over my shoulder then poking my head into the hallway and check both ends. All clear.
I trot toward my locker and stuff my books inside as fast as I can get it open.
I whirl around only to find Matt standing behind me with a scowl carved so deep in his face he resembles a stone gargoyle.
“I got detention because of you.”
Even though I’m at least six inches taller than him—hell, I’m taller than everyone at school, including most of the teachers—I back into my locker, clutching my old book bag to my chest as if the ragged canvas has the slightest chance of protecting me.
Matt stalks forward, all glares and cracking knuckles. “You’re going to pay for that, Jolly Red Giant.”
“I…I…d-didn’t do a-anything. You’re the one who—”
“Why do you have to be such a loser?” he asks, his muscles bulging.
I might be taller, but he’s wider and stronger. As the local football star, he could probably snap me in two if he wanted. I can’t help wondering if he takes steroids and maybe that’s why he’s been extra mad at me lately. This twitching mass of excessive hormones can’t be normal for a seventeen-year-old kid.
“You and your red hair and your stupid, weird ears, and your dirty hands…”
“They’re not dirty. It’s eczema. I can’t hel—”
“Shut up!” He slams his fist into the locker door near my head, leaving a large dent in the metal.
“You get me detention again, and that locker will be your ugly face, you fire-crotch loser.”
A rush of pressure throbs behind my eyes, the same pressure that typically precedes the all-too-familiar tears of my pathetic existence, and my eczema-spotted palms itch like crazy, but I resist the urge to scratch and draw his attention. The force inside my head builds, like a boiling kettle, until it feels as if the top of my skull might pop right off.
He sticks his face in mine, and it smells as though we stepped in the middle of a pine forest as his cologne wafts around us.
A wave of nausea washes over me, and I desperately glance around the deserted hall for help I know isn’t coming. Even if there were any other kids wandering around, none of them would dare cross Matt.
The tension in my head increases until I want to scream.
Then, out of nowhere, it stops.
The locker door Matt dented with his meaty fist flies open and smashes his face with a loud clang.
He stumbles back, clutching his now-bloody nose, and looks around with wide eyes.
Sadly, no one else is around to witness the lovely karmic payback.
Figuring now is as good a time as any, I make a break for it and leave Matt standing, dumfounded, in the middle of the hall as though his feet are glued to the dull linoleum floor.
I know entering the crowded cafeteria during the peak of lunch is asking for trouble, but it’s full of unsuspecting eyewitnesses and I need to eat. I can’t afford to skip any more meals in this place. In a school filled with olive-skinned curvy, beautiful Hispanic girls, I stick out like a—well, a skinny redheaded giant.
I grab a tray and walk the line to see what’s left. Of course, all the tater tots are gone—they are always the first to go—as are all the fries, burgers, and anything tasty.
I end up with a rather soggy-looking egg salad sandwich and a half-rotten fruit cup before slinking to my lonely seat at the end of the nerds’ table. Not that they like me either, but as long as I keep a two-seat minimum separation distance between us, they tolerate my presence. It may as well be the leper table.
I eat my awful sandwich and scratch at my palms between bites. The eczema itch is getting worse. My skin is split and bleeding.
Mom has taken me to every doctor and skin specialist she can find, but nothing they prescribe works. I don’t even bother putting the creams on anymore. They just seem to make the wounds angrier.
With some odd sense of hope and attempt at normalcy, I check my cell—like some friend actually sent me a message, which is impossible seeing as I have no friends. The only texts are from my mom.
I open Words with Friends and absentmindedly tuck my long hair behind one ear while waiting for my first anonymous opponent. The second the stale lunchroom air tickles my lobes I tug the strands down again. Ear exposure is a big problem and simply can’t happen. Being slightly pointed, rather than the nice rounded shape of everyone else’s, my ears are easy targets.
I sneak a look around as I hunch down and hope no one notices the brief lapse.
So far, so good.
I almost smile. Even with the episode in the hall, this is the least teased I’ve been for weeks.
I notice Matt, King Dick himself, still hasn’t joined the other popular kids at his usual table. Hopefully, his busted nose keeps him away for the rest of the period.
With a sinking heart, I realize my palms are an oozing mess. There’s no avoiding a visit to the nurse unless I want to smear blood all over my math book next period.
I hide my hands in my hoodie pockets and attempt to slink out of the cafeteria unnoticed. I should have known better. No one my size can slink.
“What’s up, JRG?” one guy yells.
Lazy idiot can’t even be bothered to use the full nickname he and his crew gave me.
“Been touching yourself too much again? That why you got sores all over your hands?”
“Wash your hands!” he screams.
I scurry out to the chanting chorus of Wash your hands! Wash your hands! Wash your hands! from the entire cafeteria.
How did this become my life?
Until I turned fourteen, I was almost popular. Boys flirted with me, and girls even complimented me on my long red hair and green eyes. Then…hormones kicked in, and it all changed overnight. I grew a full twelve inches in a single month—no exaggeration—my ears went weird, and I got chronic eczema. Of course, the high school bloodhounds sniffed out my flaws, and the brutal teasing commenced. Now, I’m so universally despised, even the eyes of boys who once asked me out skitter away as if they’re ashamed. Most days end with me in tears.
Mom even started looking for a new school in the hopes that I might finish my last six months of mandatory education in relative peace. It’s sweet, but I know it won’t help. No matter where I go, I’m different—a member of a herd made up of the weak, the unusual, and the sick who are weeded out and killed by the ruling pack in this great institution we call high school.
Mom and I discussed trying out for some scholarships at local colleges, but I can’t face four more years of education. Besides, there’s nothing I’m interested in studying anyway. I’m not good at anything. Sports, math, English, science—nothing stands out.
Maybe I’ll get her to teach me the family business instead.
I knock on the clinic door and Karen, one of the regular nurses, opens it and smiles.
“Alex, come in. I’ll get you some bandages.”
I love how she doesn’t even ask what’s wrong anymore. And when I say love, I mean I’m mortified. Nevertheless, it’s nice not having to explain.
Every now and then, when Karen’s out, I have to go through the whole ordeal again and assure the fill-in nurse that, yes, I have been to the doctor, and yes, I have tried all the creams, and no, nothing is helping, and yes, my mom does know about the problem.
I walk inside and my heart sinks.
Matt is sitting in one of the scuffed pleather recliners holding an ice pack to his nose.
Karen walks into the other room, and Matt takes the ice off long enough to growl a few “friendly” words my way.
“You’re going to pay for this.” He glances toward the door Karen went through before glaring at me and flopping his head back down.
His nose is bulbous and still bleeding, and I feel a great sense of satisfaction. I know I shouldn’t, but whatever. I’m human, too.
Karen comes back with a handful of supplies and gestures toward one of the sheet-covered cots.
She gently cleans the eczema with some moist alcohol swabs, but I still wince.
“There you are,” she says, sticking the last of the bandages over my seeping wounds. “Do you want some latex gloves?”
I shake my head. God, no! I might get away with the flesh colored bandages, but there’s no way the gloves will be overlooked.
I feel the tears gathering when I see pity in Karen’s eyes.
“I think you should spend the next period or two here,” she says as she pats my shoulder. “Just so I can keep an eye on you, of course.” She winks.
I nod and give her a grateful smile.
“I’ll go inform the office.”
“No! Wait, I—”
But the door closes and she’s gone.
Oh, shit. She left me…alone…with Matt—the same Matt who hasn’t stopped glaring since I walked in. Maybe I can pick up a shard of his practically tangible hot anger and stab myself in the heart just to save him the trouble.
As soon as the door clicks shut, Matt throws aside the ice pack and stalks toward me, clenching and unclenching his fists with every step.
I jump off the cot and almost trip over my own feet in my rush to scramble backward.
The muscles in his jaw clench and the veins in his temples bulge as he speaks. “I don’t know how you did it, but I know you did it!”
He backs me into a corner by the small kitchenette sink, and I realize with a terrified jolt that he actually wants to hurt me. Words are one thing, but physical violence? That’s new.
I feel the familiar pressure in my head, and my palms itch worse than ever. As I stand there, speechless, in the face of his fury, I can actually feel the bandaged skin splitting apart and the blood seeping from fresh wounds and pat, pat, patting on the floor near my feet.
“Let’s see how you like a broken nose.”
I watch Matt’s meaty fist move toward my face in a kind of strange slow motion, like I’m viewing a sports channel replay.
He’s going to hit me. Even though there’s no way he’ll get away with it, and he’ll be expelled, he’s actually going to do it. I never thought he’d resort to this. I mean, Matt’s the star of the football team and hoping to get scouted for a college scholarship. He is also one of the guys who asked me out all those years ago, so I always thought his teasing was just that. Yes, it’s gotten more vicious over the years, but I never guessed there was so much anger behind it. I never thought he’d be so reckless to put his future on the line just to hurt me.
No, not just anger—this is outright fury.
With a sneer on his lips and twist of his brow, the familiar face I’ve been staring at for the last six years is almost unrecognizable, and I smell his strange, overpowering pint-scented cologne again. It’s like he just bathed in it.
All the details register in the fraction of a second it takes for his fist to close the gap between his shoulder and my face.
Move, my brain screams.
With a gracefulness I’ve always wished for but never had until now, I sidestep the blow.
Time speeds up again, and Matt’s punch lands with a loud crunch in the drywall where my head just was.
Clutching his hand, he howls and asks, “How did you…” His massive left fist is already swinging before he even finishes the question.
Somehow, I catch his hand in mine, stopping it like a concrete wall rather than a bloody palm. Then my wrist twists in some complicated maneuver, and my leg snakes out and sweeps his feet out from under him.
Matt lands on the floor, gaping up at me. The anger on his face replaced by fear, and there’s no doubt we are both thinking the same thing: What the hell just happened?
Grasping my bleeding palms together, I flee.
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